Priests for Life v. U.S. Dep't of Health & Human Servs.

Decision Date14 November 2014
Docket Number13–5371,14–5021.,Nos. 13–5368,s. 13–5368
Citation772 F.3d 229
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — District of Columbia Circuit

Robert J. Muise argued the cause for appellants/cross-appellees Priests For Life, et al. Noel J. Francisco argued the cause for appellants/cross-appellees Roman Catholic Archbishop of Washington, et al. With them on the briefs were Eric Dreiband and David Yerushalmi.

Kimberlee Wood Colby was on the brief for amici curiae The Association of Gospel Rescue Missions, et al. in support of cross-appellants/cross-appellees.

Mark B. Stern, Attorney, U.S. Department of Justice, argued the cause for appellees/cross-appellants. With him on the brief were Stuart F. Delery, Assistant Attorney General, Ronald C. Machen Jr., U.S. Attorney, Beth S. Brinkmann, Deputy Assistant Attorney General, and Alisa B. Klein and Adam C. Jed, Attorneys.

Martha Jane Perkins was on the brief for amici curiae National Health Law Program, et al. in support of appellees/cross-appellants.

Marcia D. Greenberger and Charles E. Davidow were on the brief for amici curiae The National Women's Law Center, et al. in support of appellees/cross-appellants.

Ayesha N. Khan was on the brief for amici curiae Americans United for Separation of Church and State, et al. in support of appellees/cross-appellants.

Before: ROGERS, PILLARD and WILKINS, Circuit Judges.


Opinion for the Court filed by Circuit Judge PILLARD.

PILLARD, Circuit Judge:

These consolidated cases present the question whether a regulatory accommodation for religious nonprofit organizations that permits them to opt out of the contraceptive coverage requirement under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (“ACA”), 42 U.S.C. § 300gg–13(a)(4), itself imposes an unjustified substantial burden on Plaintiffs' religious exercise in violation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), 42 U.S.C. § 2000bb et seq. Plaintiffs' principal claim is that the accommodation does not go far enough. They believe that, even if they opted out, they would still play a role in facilitating contraceptive coverage. They view the regulation as thereby substantially burdening their religious exercise by involving them in what the Plaintiffs and their faith call “scandal,” i.e., leading others to do evil. Plaintiffs claim that the government lacks a compelling interest in requiring them to use the specific accommodation the regulations authorize, making the burden unjustified and unlawful. They contend that RFRA gives them a right to exclude contraceptive coverage from their employees' and students' plans without notice, and requires that the government be enjoined from implementing the contraceptive coverage requirement.

* * *

As a consequence of a period of wage controls after World War II during which employers created new fringe benefits, the majority of people in the United States with health insurance receive it under plans their employers arrange through the private market. Congress chose in the ACA not to displace that basic system. It sought instead to expand the number of Americans insured and to improve and subsidize health insurance coverage, in part by building on the market-based system of employer-sponsored private health insurance already in place. The contraceptive coverage requirement and accommodation operate through that system.

The regulations implementing the ACA and its Women's Health Amendment impose a range of standard requirements on group health plans, including that they cover contraceptive services prescribed by a health care provider without imposing any cost sharing on the patient. The contraceptive coverage requirement derives from the ACA's prioritization of preventive care, and from Congress' recognition that such care has often been modeled on men's health needs and thus left women underinsured. As discussed below, Congress included the Women's Health Amendment in the ACA to remedy the problem that women were paying significantly more out of pocket for preventive care and thus often failed to seek preventive services, including consultations, prescriptions, and procedures relating to contraception. The medical evidence prompting the contraceptive coverage requirement showed that even minor obstacles to obtaining contraception led to more unplanned and risky pregnancies, with attendant adverse effects on women and their families.

Some employers, including the Catholic nonprofits in this case, oppose contraception on religious grounds. The Catholic Church teaches that contraception violates God's design because the natural and non-sinful purpose of sex is to conceive a child within a marriage: Plaintiff Priests for Life, quoting the Papal Encyclical Humanae Vitae, declares that ‘any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation, whether as an end or as a means'—including contraception and sterilization—is a grave sin.” J.A. 49. In the view of the Catholic Church expressed through Humanae Vitae, contraception enables the separation of sex from reverence for the sexual partner, the understanding that sex makes children, and the imperative of deep commitment to marriage and family.

The Catholic Church itself is exempt from the contraceptive coverage requirement, but Catholic nonprofits have a long and broad history of service that goes far beyond worship or proselytizing. Nationally, Catholic hospitals, clinics, universities, schools, and social services groups provide many services that are not inherently religious. Catholic-identified nonprofits employ and enroll as students millions of adults, not all of whom are co-religionists or share the Catholic Church's religious opposition to contraception.

Faced with an employer-based health insurance system, forceful impetus to require coverage of contraceptive services, and religious opposition by some employers to contraception, the government sought to accommodate religious objections. As detailed below, the ACA's implementing regulations allow religious nonprofits to opt out of including contraception in the coverage they arrange for their employees and students. The regulations assure, however, that the legally mandated coverage is in place to seamlessly provide contraceptive services to women who want them, for whom they are medically appropriate, and who personally have no objection to using them.

The regulatory opt out works simply: A religious organization that objects on religious grounds to including coverage for contraception in its health plan may so inform either the entity that issues or administers its group health plan or the Department of Health and Human Services. Delivery of the requisite notice extinguishes the religious organization's obligation to contract, arrange, pay, or refer for any coverage that includes contraception. The regulations then require group health plan insurers or administrators to offer separate coverage for contraceptive services directly to insured women who want them, and to inform beneficiaries that the objecting employer has no role in facilitating that coverage.

Plaintiffs, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Washington and nonprofits affiliated with the Catholic Church, arrange for group health coverage for their employees and students. Plaintiffs oppose the ACA's contraceptive coverage requirement on religious grounds and do not want to provide the requisite contraceptive coverage. Instead of taking advantage of the accommodation, Plaintiffs filed suit to challenge it as a violation of their religious rights.

Plaintiffs' principal claim arises under RFRA. Congress enacted RFRA in response to the Supreme Court's decision in Employment Division v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872, 110 S.Ct. 1595, 108 L.Ed.2d 876 (1990), that the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment “does not relieve an individual of the obligation to comply with a valid and neutral law of general applicability.” Id. at 879, 110 S.Ct. 1595 (internal quotation marks omitted). Congress sought to reinstate as a statutory matter the pre-Smith free exercise standard. Under RFRA, the federal government may not “substantially burden” a person's religious exercise—even where the burden results from a religiously neutral, generally applicable law that is constitutionally valid under Smith —unless the imposition of such a burden is the least restrictive means to serve a compelling governmental interest.

The contraceptive coverage opt-out mechanism substantially burdens Plaintiffs' religious exercise, Plaintiffs contend, by failing to extricate them from providing, paying for, or facilitating access to contraception. In particular, they assert that the notice they submit in requesting accommodation is a “trigger” that activates substitute coverage, and that the government will “hijack” their health plans and use them as “conduits” for providing contraceptive coverage to their employees and students. Plaintiffs dispute that the government has any compelling interest in obliging them to give notice of their wish to take advantage of the accommodation. And they argue that the government has failed to show that the notice requirement is the least restrictive means of serving any such interest.

We conclude that the challenged regulations do not impose a substantial burden on Plaintiffs' religious exercise under RFRA. All Plaintiffs must do to opt out is express what they believe and seek what they want via a letter or two-page form. That bit of paperwork is more straightforward and minimal than many that are staples of nonprofit organizations' compliance with law in the modern administrative state. Religious nonprofits that opt out are excused from playing any role in the provision of contraceptive services, and they remain free to condemn contraception in the clearest terms. The ACA shifts to health insurers and...

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